These days, when we're in Berkeley, Calif., Barbara Yaley and I load up Jasper, a 10-month old border collie/lab/terrier mix, and head down University, over I-80, and onto what was once a proud garbage dump, then, North Waterfront Park, and now, Cesar Chavez Park. It's one of the most beautiful vantage points in the Bay Area. Due west across the water is the Golden Gate Bridge, then, swinging one's gaze south, the towers of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, and due east, the Berkeley hills.

Seventeen acres of this pleasing expanse are available to off-leash dogs, an incredible achievement of Berkeley dog lovers who spent about seven years of delicate political maneuvering to secure, last year, "pilot project status" for the off-leash area. To win it, they had to surmount fierce opposition from the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Citizens for an East Shore State Park, eager to seize the acreage of Cesar Chavez Park and add it to their domain. State parks in California have never yet held off-leash areas.

The whole off-leash thing cranked up nationally about five years ago. I can't verify my instinct here, but I think it has been, at least in part, the consequence of organizing work of midlife radicals bringing the war home, discovering that winning a little leg room for Fido is one cause whose fruition is something we might see in our own lifetimes.

Across the country, dog lovers are beginning to flex their political muscles. We're talking big potential clout here. Claudia Kawczynska edits The Bark, formerly the Berkeley Bark, now a national quarterly with a circulation of 60,000. She tells me it's hard to be sure, but somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the nation's households have dogs. City after city has acknowledged their new organizing power. I expect Gore and Bush will be issuing dog position papers any day now.

In Seattle, COLA (Citizens for an Offleash Area) trounced UNCOLA, and got their canine-friendly acreage. Portland, Ore., is off-leash friendly, too. Chicago has Wiggly Field. (I know, dogdom has a terrible tendency to cuteness.) Los Angeles is a nightmare. Earlier this month, San Francisco dog lovers went up against the fearsome might of the National Park Service and the Audubon Society, challenging an edict closing a portion of the delightful 300-acre Fort Funston park in southwest San Francisco because of the nesting bank swallow. The U.S. District Court judge lent SF DOG a friendly ear, and told the contending parties to come back with fresh briefs.

The usual gripes of the anti-off-leash forces? They try to seize the high moral ground by giving us the old "Either/Or." Why should we be seeking playgrounds for dogs when we aren't giving them to children? Answer: Civilization is not a zero-sum game. Let's have both. Kids and dogs. Dog poop? Dogs on leashes do it as much as dogs running free, and surveys show that, once they win their off-leash area, dog lovers self-police with all the vigilance of a neighborhood committee of public safety in the Paris of Robespierre and St. Just. The off-leash area in Cesar Chavez is probably the cleanest acreage in the East Bay.

Another ugly slur. Off-leash dogs are dangerous. Cities would face big liability exposure. To the contrary. Most dog biting occurs in the home, and there's never been such a liability suit. A dog that can run free is a happy dog, uplifter of domestic morale. Owners are healthier, too, dashing along after dogs like Jasper.

In fact, just the other day, Jasper and I were dashing along, pondering the dark news. Foes of freedom were prowling round our off-leash area, readying themselves for a deadly pounce.

The trouble really started when Cesar Chavez died. All over California, city councils voted to rename streets, parks, bridges and other features of the landscape after the great organizer of farm workers. San Francisco got Cesar Chavez instead of Army Street In Berkeley, they wanted to rename University Avenue, but the Indian merchants down at the lower end raised a fuss. It's expensive for storekeepers when a street gets renamed. So, North Waterfront Park was duly converted into Cesar Chavez Park, and some Hispanic factions took this as an invitation to adopt a proprietary attitude, as if the new name meant that the old landfill surfaced with 3 feet of topsoil was somehow theirs.

Enter an artist, Santiago Casal, who wants to build what he once termed an "Aztec calendar" on the western ridge. His latest model presumes the city will give him a circle 90 feet in diameter, with bermed walls 8 feet high. Casal wants all off-leash dogs banned, since freely moving canines, even adjacent to his prospective work, might discommode "meditation." And he claims that the off-leash area "desecrates" the memory of Cesar Chavez (who, in fact, loved dogs, and whose Berkeley-based nephew, owner of Pinto the dog, supports the off-leash area).

For reasons entirely to do with the political geography of Berkeley, the council has treated Casal and his project with respect, and was set to deny the off-leash area promotion from "pilot project" to "program," a serious bureaucratic setback for us off-leashers. The fateful city council meeting approached. Off-leashers rallied and turned out by the score. Eventually, the council decided to be Solomonic. We get upgraded status for the off-leash area. Casal may get his ridge, may get his calendar, and perhaps, one day, Jasper will lift his leg against it, just as dogs have all the great works of man since the pyramids were built.

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